By Carol Colclough Strickland ’68
It’s a long haul from the magnolia-lined streets of Memphis to the remote, South Pacific islands of Vanuatu. It’s a path Kenneth Cameron ’89 has traveled purposefully.
A high-profile authority on orchids, Cameron is associate curator at the renowned New York Botanical Garden, the premier American institution for botany located in the Bronx borough of New York City. Besides Vanuatu, Cameron conducts field research in exotic locales like Fiji, Borneo, New Caledonia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.
“Ken,” says Alan Jaslow, assistant professor of biology at Rhodes, “is the expert on vanilla orchids,” a subfamily that produces pods used for the popular spice.
Cameron frequently speaks as an orchid specialist to the media. In 2003, he offered commentary for television shows on orchids for CNN and the Discovery Channel. He participated in NOVA’s 2002 PBS show The Orchid Hunter, House and Garden TV’s 2001 one-hour documentary The Orchid Mystique and was featured on a BBC radio broadcast on the Venus flytrap. His research was recently featured in The New York Times, “a big coup for us,” according to Cameron, since botanical research is not often covered in the newspaper’s “Science Times” section.
With 80,000 fans flocking to the garden’s annual orchid show, which takes over its famed conservatory to herald spring, Cameron is even more in the spotlight, delivering a lecture to hordes of fanatics.
A “slicer and dicer,” as he calls himself, Cameron pursues laboratory-based, hypothesis-driven research, distant from orchid horticulture. He uses DNA technology to trace the evolution of this popular plant, which contains more than 25,000 species. Several hundred new species are discovered each year, making orchids the largest plant family.
“Orchids are the poster child of plant conservation,” Cameron says, “as the panda is a symbol for animals.” With their striking beauty and diverse forms and colors, orchids have attracted collectors and amateur growers since Victorian times, when the mania for the tropical plants was called “orchidelirium.”
Orchids are second in economic value only to poinsettias among non-agricultural plants. The international trade in orchids amounts to $10 billion a year, and some individual, rare plants have sold for more than $25,000, according to Susan Orlean’s best-seller The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which inspired the award-winning film Adaptation.
Far from the mountainous forest canopy where Cameron seeks specimens for his work are the halls of Rhodes’ Frazier Jelke Science Center, where his career began.
Before he landed at Rhodes, Cameron’s childhood in Michigan first kindled his love of plants.
“That’s where my interest started—growing up outdoors in nature,” he says. His family had a small hunting cabin in the north woods, and Cameron picked “grocery bags full” of wild morel mushrooms in the spring, when wildflowers bloomed rampantly in the fields.
His father, who worked on the Chrysler assembly line in Detroit, gave his son a camera for his seventh birthday. The boy progressed to photographing wildflowers, then growing carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps under gro-lights in his basement.
When assigned to write the obligatory essay at age eight, “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up,” Cameron stapled together sketches and a firm declaration: “I want to be a botanist.”
He recalls, “I thought the job sounded so cool—traveling through the jungle—but, of course, this was not popular for a kid. Boys are supposed to do sports, but I really loved plants.”
In his teens, Cameron moved to middle Tennessee where his father worked at the Nissan automotive plant. Cameron got his first glimpse of the Rhodes campus when his family drove him to Memphis to catch a plane for Japan, where he was going to be a high school exchange student.
“Wow, that’s a beautiful place,” he thought at the time. “I made this mental note. I have to check this out.”
He later applied to Rhodes but knew, coming from a blue-collar family with limited income, he would need financial aid to enroll. Fortunately, Cameron received a J.R. Hyde Scholarship, which paid full tuition, room and board for four years. He still remembers hearing the news: “I got all choked up. I couldn’t believe what a great opportunity it was.”
He distinguished himself among his fellow science students.
“A lot of our students have potential, but Ken had a passion for learning about plants and their natural world,” Jaslow says. “He was one of a rare group of students who demonstrates a scholarly interest in biology.”
John Olsen, professor of biology and associate dean of academic affairs, recalls his surprise when Cameron sought him out as a freshman.
“The number of budding botanists is small. It was very unusual to see someone come in already committed to plant systematics.”
Indeed, most biology majors pursue a premedical curriculum. During Cameron’s four-year tenure as a Rhodes undergraduate, no botany course was offered due to lack of demand. To fill the void, Olsen offered to instruct Cameron in a one-on-one tutorial.
“He gave me photocopies of all his notes, which I use now in teaching,” Cameron says.
Plants weren’t Cameron’s only love at Rhodes. Music vied for his soul. He played oboe and English horn with the Germantown Symphony, sang with the Rhodes College Singers and helped establish the Rhodes College Community Orchestra, for which he performed as a soloist during its debut concert. Though not a music major, he gave a senior recital and received the Mercer Award for Outstanding Music Student.
Cameron faced a choice: biology or music as a career? That’s where Rhodes had a formative influence.
“The biologists at Rhodes were fantastic,” he says. “Those guys shaped my whole life.”
He undertook an honors thesis on the carnivorous pitcher plant and his adviser, Prof. Olsen, offered to let him use his office at any time.
“The idea that a professor would give me access to his office, let me use his computer and microscope was so moving,” Cameron says. “That’s the difference at a small liberal-arts college like Rhodes. You get that individual attention.”
In courses offered by Prof. David Kesler, a marine ecologist, Cameron got interested in outdoor, field-oriented biology.
Prof. Jaslow, who studies tropical frogs, had an orchid collection, and he gave Cameron cuttings, which spurred his interest in studying orchids. Jaslow recommended that Cameron pursue graduate studies with his friend Dr. Mark W. Chase, “a hotshot, rising star in botany, as Jaslow called him at the time.” (Chase, now a preeminent expert on flowering plants at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, at that time had just begun his academic career at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.)
Chase was one of the first to use DNA as a tool to study plant relationships, which was then a laborious, expensive and dangerous task involving radioactive labeling. As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina and a visiting student at Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom, Cameron conducted research on vanilla orchids.
“I worked on a small orchid project, and it just blossomed,” Cameron says. He churned out an impressive amount of data. His Ph.D. work received two prestigious awards in 1996, being recognized as the best publication by the American Society of Plant Taxonomy and the Botanical Society of America.
As acting chair of the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics Studies at The New York Botanical Garden, Cameron continues this research today.
“The buzzwords in my discipline,” he explains, “are ‘pattern’ and ‘process.’ By looking at patterns in nature, one hopes to unravel the processes that shaped the pathways leading to biodiversity,” he says. “We’re basically building family trees,” studying genealogical relationships among different species of orchids at the genetic level.
Cameron asks questions such as when, where, why and how did orchids evolve? Why are there more than in any other family of plants? And why did the most primitive forms dwell on the forest floor, while later forms became tree-dwelling epiphytes, no longer requiring soil for nourishment?
“The kind of research I do is not going to save the world or find a cure for any major disease,” he admits, “but it’s important to understand our own planet and the diversity of life, especially at a time when so much of it is imperiled.”
Cameron uses not only DNA sequencing of leaf tissue to trace the lineage of orchid species, he also does traditional studies and microscope work on pressed plant specimens, looking at morphology, anatomy and ecological evidence.
“He uses these databases to put together a modern approach with the more traditional approach,” Jaslow says, describing Cameron’s work as “a melding.”
This varied methodology Cameron describes as an outgrowth of his training at Rhodes.
“It goes back to the liberal-arts idea of being well-rounded and multifaceted,” he says. “The idea ingrained in my education is not to be too focused or specialized, but to look at things from different angles.”
The Rhodes experience was so important to Cameron that initially after graduate school he accepted a faculty position at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, a small, liberal-arts school. He taught for two years before accepting an offer in 1998 from the New York Botanical Garden to resume being a power player in the rarified world of international botanical research.
His work on the vanilla orchid is particularly hot. It’s the only orchid of agricultural value, and the world supply is threatened. Two years ago, plantations in Madagascar, a major supplier, were wiped out by a hurricane. With vanilla becoming increasingly popular as a flavoring (in soft drinks, liquor and dairy products), the wholesale price has risen to $225 per pound for vanilla beans, forcing farmers, Cameron says, “to hire armed guards to prevent poachers from taking their beans.”
Cameron’s field work typically consists of collecting pressed specimens from mountainous areas of islands in the South Seas, where the habitat is still mostly untouched. Wherever he travels, he explores not only the flora but art, music and cuisine. On Vanuatu (formerly known as the New Hebrides archipelago, near Fiji), he recalls a close encounter with local culture.
Its natives have the dubious distinction of having invented bungee jumping. As a rite of passage to manhood, boys tie vines to one leg and dive headfirst off a tall tower constructed of bush materials. Cameron wasn’t eager to sample that particular ritual, but he was intrigued by a local beverage, kava, known for its tranquilizing properties.
If you walk one mile down a dirt trail in the forest, he was told, you’ll come to a clearing where you’ll see a candle in a lantern hanging from a tree. He obediently walked through pitch-black woods until he came to a kava station. On a wooden plank, a man was grinding kava (the root of a species of pepper) into a bowl. Cameron put a few coins on the ground and was handed a liquid in a coconut shell. Surrounded by kava drinkers in a circle of moonlight, Cameron recalls the only sound was of the men drinking, then spitting on the ground, since the juice has such a bitter taste. Sure enough, a spirit of peace reigned.
Cameron is far from an advocate for kava (new evidence suggests it may cause liver damage), but he is a proselytizer for plants. An unabashed Johnny Appleseed who seeks to sow interest in botany, he’s so devoted to undergraduate teaching that he sought out a part-time teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY.
“I feel a calling,” Cameron confesses. “Traditional botany, biodiversity and pure basic plant science and morphology are not being taught at universities any more. The discipline’s slowly disappearing.”
He now combines full-time research and mentoring graduate students with teaching at Sarah Lawrence as his way to remedy the shortage.
“I like the idea that undergraduates are usually undecided as to their future directions. Strong mentors can make a difference in steering them, as they did for me at Rhodes. Botany needs that.”
Already some of his undergraduates have decided to continue higher education in botany.
“Seeing your own research in print is a great feeling,” he says. “But I’d trade off 20 of those experiences for one of knowing I’ve made a difference in a young person’s life.”
To increase his daily exposure to nature, Cameron recently moved to a small, mountain cabin on a lake in the Hudson Highlands, about a 50-minute commute to the Bronx. His partner of 13 years, Brian Thompson ’80 is currently associate director at the 2,000-acre historic Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.
Cameron says he’s found “that perfect balance of teaching in an undergraduate setting and pure research in a research institution.”
One thing remains.
“It’s easy,” Cameron notes, “to take trees and other plants for granted.”
Undergraduate students, incredibly enough, typically tell him, “Plants aren’t alive. They don’t make sound and they don’t move.” Further, they don’t have adorable, furry babies to evoke sympathy. His mission is to correct such ignorance.
“Even though we don’t often stop and think about them,” Cameron insists, “plants are vital to the planet and integrated into our lives.”
Plants aren’t just sources of food, clothing, shelter, habitat and aesthetic enjoyment. They’re important parts of our lives, he points out, even marking ceremonial occasions: spruce trees at Christmas, roses and chocolate at Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for St. Paddy’s, lilies and palm fronds for Easter, and daisies for divining a romantic partner’s intentions.
If Cameron had his way, he, like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, would urge, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”